Western Europe in the age of renaissance and reformation
"Italy led the way in the education of the western races, and was the
first to realise the type of modern as distinguished from classical and
medieval life". - J.A. Symonds
The term 'renaissance' was borrowed from the French language. It has
a wide meaning. Renaissance signifies the cultural achievements of
Europeans between 1300 and 1600 which mark the passage from the Middle
Ages to the modern world. These include not only such higher
accomplishments as art, music, literature and science, but also
far-reaching changes in the economic bases of life, the structure of
society and the organisation of states on the other hand.
The word 'reformation' is applied to the upheaval of the 16th century
which shattered the unity of the Christian faith in western Europe. A
State church arose in England which began by denying Papal headship but
soon accommodated itself to Lutheran and Calvinist influences within its
fold. Lutheranism took away from Rome the obedience of the majority of
Germans and Scandinavians. Calvin led great numbers of the lower classes
of Switzerland, France and other lands out of the Catholic fold. The
Papacy, once a world power which had challenged the empire for the
supremacy of the world was driven even out of the city of Rome. The
expression reformation was more a revolution than a reform of the old
faith and church.
In the age of renaissance commerce, industry and the use of coined
money became a marked feature of life in the more advanced centres of
A capitalist society was emerging. An economic revolution of the
first magnitude was accomplished. As commerce, industry and the use of
coined money progressed, towns sprang up in large numbers. They became
more populous and wealthy. The centre of social life shifted. It was no
longer the nobleman's castle, or the Bishop's Palace, crowded and busy
towns supported by trade and manufacture took their place. Mercantilism
came into being. Business practices were elaborated, especially after
the new geographic discoveries.
The realms of scientific thought were peculiarly enlarged. A better
type of education, adequate for most requirements of the new life, was
evolved. The invention of printing became the peculiar instrument of its
diffusion. As the new economics and society transformed political life,
a better and more modern analysis of the State became necessary.
A science of politics, freed from theological ethics was produced.
The insistent demands of the changing conditions of life made necessary
a new attitude towards the world. Men professed very ascetic ideals in
the middle ages; to deny unduly the claims of society and the needs of
the flesh was thought by many to be the highest moral attitude. The all
pervading influence of the clergy and their extensive economic,
political, and ecclesiastical privileges apparently stood in the way of
a fuller appreciation of the worthiness of man's secular activity. But
this changed in the renaissance.
Man's outlook became more secular; it revolted against the view that
the life beyond was more important than the things of this world.
This secular tendency, together with other factors, produced
Protestantism which shattered the traditional unity of western
Christianity. Europe of the Renaissance was much smaller than it is
today. Its eastern boundary lay beyond Budapest. This line separated
Finns and Poles and Slovaks from the vast plans to the East occupied by
Russians and other people.
Throughout this region, beginning with the 12th century, great
economic changes were in progress with profoundly modified ways of
living. Men began to adopt new conceptions of state, society and life.
The revival of trade and industry, the use of coined money, and the
rise of towns which began in the 11th century were among the most
significant social and economic events in the entire history of the
Occident. The age of the renaissance was an age of urban life.
Northern Italy occupied the centre of the economic stage. Lombardy
and the Adriatic Sea became the chief corridor through which passed the
ever-growing volume of goods to and from the East. Venice at the head of
the Adriatic early secured a lion's share of this trade.
In the 15th century Venice was the most remarkable commercial centre
of the Occident.
Thus in the age of Renaissance commerce and industry begot towns,
towns begot wealth and wealth begot aristocracy. Renaissance culture was
truly the culture of the bourgeoisie.
It first came into existence at the close of the Middle Ages in an
atmosphere of opulence developed in the trading and industrial centres
of Tuscany and Northern Italy. The distinguishing features of the new
culture were its secular character and its keen interest in the facts
and experiences of everyday practical life. Theological preoccupation
and the rigours of religious discipline, especially as they concerned
wealth, could no longer play a leading role in intellectual endeavour.
It seemed that the development of all business, government, military
matters, diplomacy, and social problems called forth so much mental
activity as to thrust traditional theological speculation into the
Another feature of the renaissance was the accumulation of wealth in
the hands of a capitalist class. Idealists who conceived a romantic
affection for the Middle Ages have often represented the social and
economic regime of those days as a model of justice. Nothing could be
more erroneous. Then, even more than now, the earth was encumbered by
its poor. The growth of capital was accompanied by a gross inequality in
the division of wealth. Workers remained poor, ill-fed, ill-housed,
irregularly employed, disconnected, and disposed to rebellion. Townsmen
or the bourgeoisie, differed so vastly from the peasantry from which
they mostly came from, that they formed a new class by the side of the
older groups, the nobility, clergy and peasantry.
The development of an urban and mercantile life caused society to
shift from its old agrarian basic to the shift from its old agrarian
basis to the new industrial and commercial foundations. Secular
governments were becoming more powerful because of these changes. A
serious crisis confronted the church during this time. The church, which
had been established during the Roman Empire possessed extensive
political privileges and an enormous amount of land. It was a powerful
political and economic competitor of princes.
It had elaborated a vast system of dogma and enjoyed greater sway
over the souls of men than did any other organisation.
Renaissance was also a time of great intellectual advancement. There
were splendid developments in literarute. The religious drama of the
middle ages vanished and in its place appeared the secular works of
writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe. Thus the foundations of modern
drama were laid. Crude prose and poetic forms gave way to more highly
The sonnets of petrarch, the epics of Ariosto and Tasso, and the
prose of boccaccio, comines and Calvin are products of the new age. At
the hands of such masters the mother tongues received artistic polish so
that they became adequate vehicles of thought in a society of growing
Francesco Petrarch was the first to give expression to the new spirit
of humanism, the attitude that secular concerns of life were good and
should not be treated with ascetic denial. Humanism the product of an
environment created by the wealth and energy of a new class, the
Petrarch and Boccaccio together founded not only Italy's national
literature, but a new literature of Renaissance. Humanism was a revolt
against many features of medieval society.
The later part of the Renaissance thoughts was expressed by a group
of literary geniuses of the highest order, of whom eramus was the most
In him were united all the ethical and intellectual conceptions which
that age of revolt brought forth. He was the first modern man of letters
to rely almost entirely upon the printing press for the diffusion of his
ideas, and he addressed his thoughts to all reading Europeans. Few men
before or since have exerted so powerful an influence upon their
contemporaries. Another aspect, especially striking in this age was the
magnificence of roman architectural models. Michelangelo, Sansovino, and
Palladio carried this art to perfection.
Sculpture attained a classical finality in three short generations
from Donatello to Michelangelo.
Masaccio began a revolution in pictorial art. Its originality and
magnificence were brought to the highest excellence by Leonardo Da
Vinci, Raphael and the Venetian School.
Medieval Music, developed so splendidly by the flemings, was
amplified and perfected by Palestrina and his followers. During the
Renaissance European culture turned from unattainable ideals to mature
Europe especially Western Europe gradually succumbed to the charm of
Renaissance thought that emanated from Italy. Which had a transforming
effect on the rest of Western Europe.
Merchant, banker and artisan whose sturdy interest in material things
made possible a civilisation in Europe that produced artists, poets and
Thus a solid foundation was laid for a modern secular society in the